Maple Syrup Flows Through Franco-Americans’ Veins
A beverage very pleasing to drink, the color of Spanish wine, but not so good. It has a sweetness which renders it of very good taste…This is the drink of the Indians, and even of the French, who are fond of it.
In this manner, the virtues of maple sap were introduced to Europe, via Frenchman Nicolas Denys’ Histoire Naturelle, published in Paris in 1672. From their first encounters with Native Americans, to the present day French Canadians and their descendants in the United States have had a long and special relationship with what was once called “Canada sugar.”
Native Americans had been drinking the liquid for unknown centuries before the practice was encountered by French settlers in Canada in the early 1600s, especially the fur traders and the Jesuit missionaries who interacted frequently with indigenous peoples.
One of the earliest written accounts is by Fr. Paul LeJeune, in 1634, who mentions that the Indians “eat the shavings or bark…which they split in the spring to get from it a juice, sweet as honey or sugar” when “pressed by famine.” Nearly a century later (1722), Father Sebastian Rale wrote from the Abenaki village of “Nanrantsouak” (Norridgewock) that his “only nourishment was pounded Indian corn, of which I make a special sort of broth…the only improvement is to mix with it a little sugar” which the Abenakis created by boiling maple sap. Two years later, Rale and the villagers were massacred in notorious a raid by New Englanders.
The popularity of maple syrup – as opposed to the sugar obtained by boiling syrup still further – is a fairly recent phenomenon. Native Americans, French Canadians and Yankees all typically favored sugar production – it was easier to store and carry, and it was less perishable than syrup. The popularity of syrup increased with the advent of canning and refrigeration technologies, and with the ever-declining cost of cane and beet sugar.
Today, Quebec is by far the largest maple syrup-producing region in North America, producing something like four times as much syrup as the entire United States. But there are also plenty of Franco-Americans involved in the New England sugaring industry. I spoke recently to two individuals at either end of the production scale – Jean (John) Bergeron, who runs the Cabane à Sucre Bergeron from his Hebron home outside his regular day job, and Fabien Larivière, former co-owner of Maine Maple Products, which owns a grove of 80,000 trees in northern Somerset County (he sold his share of the business to his brothers)
You can listen to both interviews in full below.
[Lariviere interview coming soon!]
Despite the difference in the size of their enterprises, both John and Fabien spoke of their family ties to sugaring. John, whose four grandparents all came to Maine from Canada as children or young adults, had his first encounter with syrup production as a child, when his father took Jean and his sister into their yard and tapped a tree to show them the process. Years later, John brought his own preschool-aged children outside to do the same – and what began as a friendly competition with his Franco-American neighbor has grown into an operation with his own sugar house, evaporator, and annual Maple Sunday events.
The region Bergeron’s grandparents emigrated from, the Chaudière River Valley, is so synonymous with syrup production, that John believes its name comes from the bucket used to collect maple sap (others contend the origin is from the Chaudière Falls, and the cauldrons formed at their base). He calls maple sugar le sucre de pays, or “country sugar,” a staple for hardscrabble families in Quebec in the 19th and early 20th centuries. John still uses a recipe for a maple-balsamic dressing that he inherited from his father, and he says his tarte de sirope d’erable (maple syrup pie) and tire de neige (maple snow taffy) are popular with visitors to his cabane. “In Quebec…they have these cabanes à sucre [days], which is really a continuation of the family gathering together to celebrate the harvest – it was a very labor-intensive time to collect and boil the sap, so they had a tradition of gathering to celebrate…which today has evolved into a business enterprise.” John says that every year, his Maine Maple Sunday events are well-attended by Franco-Americans, speaking French and recalling the maple traditions of their childhood.
Fabien Larivière belongs to six generations of a family which has tapped trees in Six Town Plantation in Somerset County for over a century. Throughout this time, though, the family have retained their roots just over the border in Quebec. Originally, the only access to the sugar house was along a private dirt road which straddled the international border. Napoléon Larivière opened a small sugar camp there in the early 1900s, some 3 ½ miles from his house in Canada, with just a small number of taps, making sugar block. The small profit from sugaring provided some income after the logging season came to an end each spring. Now the company produces something like 50,000 gallons of syrup each year – but despite advances in technology, it’s still a labor-intensive industry.
“It’s a way of life – you must love it – it has to be in your blood. When I was a kid, we were allowed to go to the sugar camp, and now my nephew comes to the sugar camp, he came this weekend at five years old. It’s in the blood of the family.”
And in the sense that Franco-Americans form one large family across the continent, it’s in their blood, too.
Thanks to John and Fabien for their interviews, and to the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose bibliography of primary sources relating to maple syrup formed the basis of my research.